Can’t take the musician out of the producer
> Easter trades stage for studio, but ventures out to recharge fun side
Mitch Easter might’ve helped shape the sound of early R.E.M. and became one of the key sonic architects of what would become alternative music, but he’s never been comfortable with the term “producer.”
“I know it sounds like a coquettish thing to say, but I just never thought of myself that way,” says Easter. “I was really excited about opening a studio and working on records, but exactly what my role was — I didn’t think about that. I would be working on these projects and the records would come out and they’d say that I’d produced them. I was like ‘Oh, really?’ In my mind a producer was someone like Quincy Jones. I didn’t think I was qualified for the job.”
Easter would prove himself more than qualified: Starting in the early ’80s, he would craft a succession of influential and highly regarded albums for the likes of R.E.M., Game Theory, the Windbreakers, and Marshall Crenshaw. But his work in the studio meant that his main passion, playing music, was set to the side.
These days, Easter has returned to his first love — at least part time. On Friday, he’ll headline the third annual Memphis Pops Festival, a free concert taking place Downtown next to Earnestine & Hazel’s.
The show will mark Easter’s first local appearance in some 20 years. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in making records. But that’s work, and playing in a band is play,” says Easter of his current group, which includes his wife Shalini Chatterjee. “Nowadays, we’re sort of power hobbyists. We’ll go out for a little run of dates, and it’s always fun.”
For much of the ’80s, Easter was able to juggle both his thriving careers. His Drive-In Recording Studio in Winston-Salem, N.C. — located in a two-car garage — became the hub of the Southern pop movement. Meantime, Easter was making noise himself with his combo Let’s Active.
But, eventually, something had to give, and it turned out it was Easter’s performing career. After three critically acclaimed LPs, Let’s Active quietly came to a halt in 1988.
“The band was running out of gas. I had to let it go in a practical sense, because the studio was a real job,” says Easter. “It was a kind of heartbreak for me; I would’ve stayed in the same band for the rest of my life, because I loved the idea of that. But few people get that opportunity.”
Easter turned his attention to production full time, eventually opening a new commercial studio and spending the ’90s and much of the 2000s engineering and producing records for indie greats including Dinosaur Jr., Velvet Crush, Pavement and Superchunk.
Finally, in 2007, Easter released a solo record, Dynamico— his first new music in 18 years. “The worst thing for finishing a record is to be in the studio business like I am. Because the studio is always being used by someone else,” says Easter. “It’s hard to actually find enough time to get anything going. Dy namico was mostly stuff that was already lying around that I just got to finish.”
Easter says he’s got more than enough material to put out a follow-up. “After that last one, which came out after this fantastic length of time, I thought it would be cool to release another record six months later, like bands in the ’60s used to, but I couldn’t get it together,” he says, with a chuckle. “I’m not gonna make any claims about when I’m going to pull it together, but I’m gonna try to get something else out pretty soon.”
Aside from R.E.M., few of the bands that emerged from the ’80s Southern pop and jangle pop scenes made any big commercial waves, but now there seems to be a renewed respect and interest in the sort of sounds that Easter and his peers were making.
“Well, in my day, ‘jangle pop’ was a somewhat disparaging term. It would be the kind of thing a rock critic would use to put you down as he was moving away from you and to the Pixies or something a little more tough,” says Easter, laughing.
“But I’m realizing in recent years with younger people it does not have the same negative connotations. I’ve had bands come into the studio and use that term shamelessly, in a way that no one my age would. Maybe there is some kind of reassessment of the history there, which now sees that period as some great time in music.”
After more than 30 years in the business, Easter says he’s still happy doing what he does, and has come to view his work in the studio like that of a craftsman.
“For me it’s like discovering that you really like to make things out of glass or wood or something. It’s this kind of hands-on thing, but it also totally engages your brain and social senses in a way that’s just right for me,” he says. “I’m really happy that I found a job I like. Even after all this time, I’m not bored with it; there’s still stuff I want to do, so I hope I can keep doing it.”
Mitch Easter is making one of his occasional forays back into performing after a production career took away his time.